At the bunfight following his marriage to Helene Brand, theatrical agent Jake Justus, reflecting that “he had had more than his fair share of homicides”, is unprepared for Mona McClane boasting that she will kill someone “in broad daylight on the public streets, with…plenty of witnesses”. Surely she can’t be serious? And so a bet is struck — powered, no doubt, by the veneer of alcohol that drives so much of Craig Rice’s wild plotting — that, if Mona commits the murder, Jake will prove her guilty of it. And then a man is shot dead on the busiest corner in Chicago during the Christmas rush, with Mona McClane spotted in the vicinity just moments before.
Belying her reputation as a purely comedic author, Craig Rice opens The Wrong Murder (1940) with a superbly tense sequence tracing the route taken by our victim through the throngs of Christmas shoppers “trying to go any one of four different directions, shoved and struggl[ing] to make their way through the jam. The air was filled with voices, with the racket of streetcars, automobiles, and taxicabs, with two different Christmas carols shouted from loudspeakers on opposite sides of the street, and with the continual, insistent jingling of the little bells.” The man appears to evade his unsuspected fate, “perhaps [feeling] a certain chilling of the blood, and impulse to turn back” before a shot rings out and, after being carried a little distance by the dense, panicking crowd, he is discovered with a bullet hole in his back. It’s good, strong stuff, and marks a surprisingly dark opening to an essentially light novel.
We then jump back in time 24 hours to Jake Justus, who is himself under the influence of good, strong stuff, having finally married socialite Helene Brand after several interrupted attempts in The Corpse Steps Out (1940).
With half a dozen of his father-in-law’s drinks under his belt, anyone attempting to convey him anywhere would probably be arrested for shipping munitions without a permit.
It’s here that the fascinating Mona — “She had written a best seller, become a licensed airplane pilot, hunted tigers in India and elephants in Africa, run for Congress unsuccessfully, gone on a polar expedition, made a transatlantic solo flight, been sued twice for alienation of affections, met the Grand Lama of Tibet, had a screen test, and been reported engaged to every eligible man on three continents” — holds forth on a fascination with murder (“To know that someone who has been alive is dead — dead by one’s own hand — what’s it like? How does it feel? What’s the sensation of knowing you’ve killed, intentionally, another human being?”) and the bet is made. And so when Jake and Helene read of the opening shooting in the paper, especially given the corpse’s loose connection to Mona, the game is clearly afoot.
Of the many commendable things Rice achieves in this, her third novel, the most striking to me is how brilliantly she captures her characters with thumbnail portraits that stand out amidst the hyperactive goings-on. Be it Englishman Leonard Marchmont whose “apparently permanent expression was that of one who has just heard an incredible but well-verified fact for the first time.” (“The English were truly a wonderful race, if they could overcome handicaps like that,” Jake reflects), Mrs. Ogletree coming across as “the sort of woman who was always one sentence behind in the conversation and trying desperately to catch up”, a nameless bartender who encounters Jake and Helene at maximum ribaldry and “worried over the whole thing for days”, or lawyer John J. Malone’s secretary Maggie being summoned to her boss’ office through the expedient of a raised voice and “mutter[ing] something about the buzzer being in working order”, there’s life breathed into even the least of the people here, and done so with an archness and acuity that elevates the whole.
The plot wouldn’t seem, at first glance, to support an entire book, but at the halfway stage it gets really quite impressively complex — Rice has a handle on these multiple-moving-parts plots that seems to have eluded her less puzzle-focussed American kin — and holds water throughout, despite her bibulous central trio being the perfect excuse to allow for a dropped thread of five. I’ve said before that the frankly excessive amounts of booze consumed in these tales seems to me simply a way to grease the wheels of some pleasingly nimble plot developments, and I stand by that on this evidence. When she needs to be serious, Rice has the ability to switch gears with a speed and skill that makes even Helene’s driving look amateurish by comparison, and is able to banish any air of fatuousness with an ease that puts most other authors to shame.
The atmosphere of the room seemed alive, fairly crackling with cross-currents of hatred. He thought it was almost possible to hear it, like static on a cheap radio. Different people hating each other for different reasons. It gave a strange, electric quality to everything that was said, a quality that threatened at any moment to burst into verbal flames.
The air of grimness behind the technicolor delights of the foreground is actually pretty well-developed throughout, giving a tragic air to certain events that would be easy to pass over, and which fill out the people involved so much more fully. “I went out because I felt lonely and bored, and I only got more lonely and more bored” Mona confesses at one stage, revealing the soul of this hugely impressive woman more accurately than any 800 page maundering tome ever could; and when the true source of the money for the payment of a kidnapper’s ransom comes to light, it’ll break the tiniest sliver off your heart. If your impression of Rice’s writing is that she’s all booze and laffs — and mine was, until I actually read her novels — be prepared to have that challenged in the best possible way.
It’s interesting just how unscrupulous Malone comes across here, too, given his boasts about defending murderers, his claims that he’d’ve gotten acquittals for patently guilty people, and his sleight-of-hand in the final chapter. The previous entries in this series made Malone seem moral simply because he was on the side of the ostensible heroes and was behaving in a way that protected characters we had every reason to assume were innocent of the murders that haunted them. This revelation of his practices makes him less easily likeable, sure, but also more of a real person — “Suddenly he felt very tired and lonely. Life was all at once very meaningless and very full. Perhaps, he decided, he was getting old.” — and uncovers some delightfully waggish quirks to his personality (c.f. Maggie’s telephoning responsibility). How he’s able to put these events into any sort of order eludes me, but his summary at the end is the perfect blending of both sides of his characters, and a delight to behold.
Also, amidst all the kinetic pinballing around and linguistic tomfoolery (“Two birds with one stone are worth two in the bush”, “I must of known you in a previous incarceration”, etc.), is there just the faintest hint of an impossible vanishing here? If you’ve read this you’ll know what I mean, and the solution won’t set anyone’s hair on fire, but does it count? It doesn’t really make any difference to the book, which is the strongest of the Malone titles to date, I’m just curious what others think.
So, yes, another triumph from one of my new favourite authors, who plots with the creativity and tightness of peak Agatha Christie, juggles mood as dextrously as peak John Dickson Carr, populates her books with a cattiness that would delight Ngaio Marsh (“Jake was reminded of people on trains and buses reading the accounts of disasters in the morning paper, saying, “How awful!” in exhilarated and almost elated voices.”) and is unafraid to let the darkness peek through and give you the barest glimpse of how seriously all this fun should be taken. How she’s still so out of print completely baffles me, and it’s to be hoped that some enterprising publisher picks up where the American Mystery Classics range appears to have left her and makes these books available (in paperback…!) in all territories for sensible money. C’mon, they’re awesome, so why isn’t it happening?